The Big Three's road trip was a PR stunt. Why treat it as more than that?

As a journalist and an American citizen and an auto aficionado and a general admirer of absurdity, I would have loved—loved, loved—to have accompanied the Big Three auto executives last week as they drove from Detroit to Washington, D.C., on what had to have been one of the weirdest road trips ever. What must have been racing through the minds of Wagonner, Nardelli, Mulalley, and their companions as they navigated those long, lonely stretches of I-76? What must they have thought of the rest stops? (Would they appreciate the humble delights of the Roy Rogers Fixins Bar?) And—most importantly for any road trip—what tunes would they have chosen to blare over the speakers of their sad little fuel-efficient hybrids? “Life Is a Highway”? “Please Forgive Me (I Know Not What I Do)”?

Anyway, I mention the executives’ road trip of humiliationty because other journalists seem to share my fascination with it. Not, alas, with the tunes chosen for the occasion, but rather with the Symbolic Meaning of the thing, with the whole story of profligacy-giving-way-to-humility that the trip was meant to symbolize. Indeed, many journalists narrated that trajectory, without apparent irony, in terms of religious morality—penance! contrition! chastity! salvation!—as the story of the three magi told in ironic reverse. We come bearing begging gifts.

The road trip was one of contrition and pseudo-religious conversion—or, at least, it was depicted that way—because, of course, our three not-so-wise men, as the Boston Globe kindly reminded us, “were pilloried last month when they arrived on corporate jets with their hands out for $25 billion.” The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, always an eagle-eyed irony spotter, put it more succinctly: “It was a display of stone-cold tone-deafness by the automaker chiefs.”

And, yeah, it was. But, still, all the melodramatic morality plays—the fall! the redemption! the Sturm! the Drang!—that we were treated to last week miss the point. “Tone-deafness” doesn’t mean a thing when it comes to the ostensible point of the Congressional hearings—which was, in essence, to assess the creditworthiness of the Big Three corporations. The executives’ mode of travel, both to Thursday’s hearing and the previous one, says precisely nothing about how those executives will steer their companies back toward solvency. Sure, symbolically the leaving-on-a-private-jet-plane thing says a lot about the tin ear of the three guys with the tin cups—how disconnected they are from the workers whose interests they’re ostensibly representing; how isolated are their lives from the vast majority of Americans’; how little they understand, perhaps, the power of irony.

But, ultimately, the executives’ “tone-deafness” was exactly what Ryan called it last month: “a PR disaster.” It was nothing less…but it was certainly nothing more. Friday’s melodramatic assessments of the executives’ “penance” and newfound “humility” and ridiculously enforced acts of contrition, basking as so many of them do in drama that unwound before us on Thursday, conveniently forget that humility and penance have nothing to do with the real story. Insert your favorite “reporters love drama” truism here.

The primary problem with all this, as it so often is in journalistic narrative, is in the implication. Because the contrition-focused narratives suggest that contrition is an active player in this particular pageant: that whether or not the Big Three CEOs are contrite for (what’s been portrayed as) their prior prodigality will make a difference in the decision Congress comes to when it comes to the bailout.

To imply that the emotions or the humility of three little men—rather than the plans they present or the interests of the millions or workers who will be directly affected by the decision they make, not to mention the many more millions of workers who will be affected indirectly—is, in short, ridiculous. It’s insulting to members of Congress. (If I were to find out that the particular penitence Bob Nardelli demonstrated Thursday had even a modicum of impact on my Representative’s vote, come 2010, I’d be selecting another candidate.) And it’s insulting to readers and listeners, who deserve more than to be told that a series of public relations failures and remedies are anything more than that.

Congress can be forgiven for grandstanding here. A situation such as Thursday’s hearing is pretty much precisely what the term “free media” was coined for; of course members of Congress are going to take advantage of the opportunity to ham it up for their constituents and everyone else. But the press shouldn’t be following their lead. Even National Public Radio, though—so often the moral compass of the media at large—put the “PR” in “NPR” in its story about Thursday’s hearings:

Last month, the CEOs went to Congress seeking a $25 billion bailout, but they left empty-handed after lawmakers expressed skepticism over the industry’s ability to restructure in a way that would put it on a long-term path to profitability.

Their case was further weakened when it was reported that GM’s Wagoner, Ford’s Alan Mulally and Chrysler’s Bob Nardelli arrived in Washington aboard luxury corporate jets.

If a single private-jet flight, luxurious and symbolically unfortunate though it may have been, really did “weaken” the auto execs’ case…well, then, perhaps our problems are even bigger than we’d thought. And perhaps we could all use a dose of humility.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.